I remember where I was when my sternum was pulled out through my nose. It was 2002, and the Giants had a 5-1 lead in Game 6 of the World Series. I had company over -- the kind that would frown on me flipping over a coffee table and setting it on fire -- so I couldn't express my displeasure the way I wanted to. I went from wondering how to get champagne into the house to knowing, absolutely knowing, there was no way the Giants could win Game 7.
Because the Angels had momentum.
I was into stats. I knew the idea of momentum was mostly post hoc nonsense. I also knew the Giants weren't going to win Game 7. Seems like those two were mutually exclusive, but they really weren't. It wasn't that the Giants lacked momentum, it was that they were incapable of winning the series after a loss like that.
But I wasn't thinking straight. Being that close to the team clouded my judgment. The Giants' problems were Livan Hernandez and Kenny Lofton not being 12-percent stronger in the ninth inning of Game 7, not momentum. The Giants certainly weren't thinking about momentum when they were flailing against John Lackey. They were thinking, "Who is this guy?"
That bias isn't there with the Red Sox and Tigers. So as a public service, here's a list of sternum-though-the-nose losses in the playoffs that should have resulted in the kind of momentum that you could spread on a bagel. The catch is that none of these momentous victories led to a series win for their respective teams. The momentum was effective right up until the team lost the playoff series.
In reverse chronological order …
Yankees set Rangers' bullpen on fire, 2010 ALCS
I'm not a Rangers fan, but I still found Game 1 of the 2010 ALCS excruciatingly painful to watch. Uncomfortably so. The Rangers hadn't won a playoff series in their 50-year existence before beating the Rays in their ALDS. Then in their first game as a series-winning team, they blew a five-run lead in the ALCS, giving up five runs in the eight inning.
Figured that meant it was going to be the Yankees' year again. There was no way the Rangers could come back from that. Then they won the next three games, outscoring the Yankees 25-5.
If you're looking for a technical explanation about why momentum is hokum, think about what happened in Game 2 of the ALCS. Elvis Andrus led off against Phil Hughes, and the shortstop wasn't thinking about Darren O'Day. He wasn't thinking "HOW COULD YOU DARREN OLIVER?" while letting Hughes pump strike after strike past him. He was thinking about Hughes. And he singled and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Eventually, he stole home.
And about 13 minutes into Game 2, momentum was a myth.
The Arizona Diamondbacks had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, two Hall of Fame pitchers in their absolute primes. Today would be like one team having two Clayton Kershaws. The Diamondbacks won the first two games of the 2001 World Series because of Johnson and Schilling. If one of the non-aces could steal a game, there would be no way the Yankees could beat both Johnson and Schilling again.
Roger Clemens won Game 3. Okay, that made sense. But with a 3-1 lead heading into the ninth inning of Game 4, the Diamondbacks had to feel really, really, really confident. But closer Kim gave up a game-tying homer to Tino Martinez in the ninth and a walk-off homer to Derek Jeter in the 10th.
Then in Game 5, the Diamondbacks had a 2-0 lead going into the ninth. Game 4 didn't mean a lick. If they could hold on, it was still the same calculus: The Yankees would have to win against both Johnson and Schilling in Arizona. With two outs, Scott Brosius hit a two-run homer to tie the game off Kim, and won it in the 12th against Albie Lopez.
Now instead of needing both games against Johnson/Schilling, the Yankees needed just one. And they had momentum. So much momentum. When Andy Pettitte went to the mound for Game 6, he remarked, "Oh, wow, look at all this liquid momentum! Now I can blub blub blub burooooo," before drowning in the momentum and giving up six runs in two innings. Then Mariano Rivera blew a save in Game 7 because he couldn't get Tony Womack out.
Other than that, the momentum worked like a charm. And not only did the Yankees have momentum, but they were unbeatable in the playoffs. They were going for their fourth-straight championship, which is positively insane. Two last-second, ninth-inning comebacks in back-to-back home games were momentum and destiny rolled up into one. And it was still the Diamondbacks who won the World Series.
I didn't come up with the title. They did.
In the 12th inning of the 1998 ALCS, with a runner on first and no outs, Travis Fryman bunted down the first-base line. Tino Martinez fielded the ball, and threw it off Fryman. Chuck Knoblauch, covering first, motioned toward the ball while he argued with the umpire. He didn't bother to pick it up, even as eight different Yankees and 40,000 Yankee fans pleaded with him. The go-ahead run came all the way around from first base to score. When Knoblach batted in the bottom of the 12th, he was booed lustily.
When he apologized, he made one of the better welp faces of all time. Welp.
The Yankees lost the next game, too, which meant they were pretty much hosed. But three straight wins put them in the World Series, and the brain-'lauch was quickly forgotten.
We're talking about momentum, here. Which single hit in major-league history has shifted more momentum to a team? The turning point in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series was Bernie Carbo's three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. If there's a proper analogue to David Ortiz's homer in Red Sox history, that's it.
You will go through life watching baseball games, and your team will be down by three or four in the late innings, and when they get the tying run to the plate, you'll think, "HOMER TIES IT. A HOMER TIES IT." And it almost never happens. It happened for the Red Sox in 1975, and then Fisk won it in the 12th. Dang, the momentum of that swing.
And in Game 7, Roger Moret couldn't get the third out. That's all it takes. Moret couldn't bring a bag of momentum out to the mound and do a bump between pitches. He had to get major-league hitters out who were trying to avoid making an out, which is a pretty tough enterprise.
So if you're looking to feel better, Tigers fans, remember that momentum isn't a guarantee to work. If it even exists at all. And, really, the Tigers have home-field advantage in a best-of-five series now. They're still in a pretty good spot.
But if you're a Red Sox fan, you're right to wonder how in the heck a team can come back from a loss like that. Because I have no idea. The Red Sox are three wins away from turning Torii Hunter's feet into one of the most indelible images of postseason history. Goodness, what a gut-punch victory.
That was worth exactly as much as a game that was over in the second inning. It would have been better for the Tigers to win the game, of course, but teams have come back from worse. From much, much, much worse.
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